Geese on the Lower Columbia

Geese on the Lower Columbia

Study hard to pass the Canada goose test and you could be given a pass to hunt where seven subspecies of Canada geese live.

By Doug Rose

Canada goose hunting on the lower Columbia River and Willamette Valley has presented something of a paradox for Northwest hunters in recent years.

The numbers of geese have never been higher in many areas, and seven subspecies of Canadas are present during winter, providing for some of the most fascinating goose hunting in the nation.

But all goose hunting in southwest Washington and northwest Oregon has been by permit for more than a decade, and the only way to obtain a permit is to demonstrate that you can distinguish between the different subspecies of geese on the wing.

The protection of the dusky Canada goose is the complicating factor in the Lower Columbia Basin. Historically, duskies were the only goose that wintered in the region. Upwards of 20,000 wintered in the wet, vegetation-rich valleys west of the Cascades. But an earthquake on the geese's traditional nesting grounds at the mouth of southeast Alaska's Copper River in 1964 changed the nature of the habitat. Instead of a marshy, vegetated wetland, the area was transformed into an upland. As a result, goose eggs and goslings became easy prey for foxes, bears and birds. The combination of dramatically reduced breeding success with a heavy winter harvest in the lower Columbia drove the subspecies' number to critically low levels by the 1970s.

If the only objective of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife was to protect and rebuild dusky numbers, the solution would have been simple and obvious - close all hunting until the birds recovered. But duskies are no longer the only Canada goose to winter in large numbers in the region. They have been joined by six other subspecies, including Taverner's, greater, lesser, western, Vancouver and cackling geese.

Photo by Tom Migdalski

As many as 169,000 geese wintered in the region in recent years. Upward of 70 percent of those were cackling geese, a small goose that traditionally wintered in California's Central Valley. Western Canada geese, which were introduced into the region to provide hunting opportunity, and Taverner's and lesser Canadas have also become increasingly abundant. This dramatic explosion of wintering geese created growing damage to agriculture crops, especially the popular grass seed and rye operations in the Willamette Valley south of Portland.

Not surprisingly, the wildlife agencies were ordered to reduce geese numbers overall, while simultaneously protecting dusky Canada geese.

If that weren't enough, Aleutian Canada geese, a primarily coastal subspecies listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, also show up in the region on a fairly regular basis.

WORKABLE SOLUTION/NEW PROBLEM
The management strategy the ODFW and WDFW devised to address these issues is ingenious, if not simple: Hunters would be required to pass a written test to demonstrate their ability to identify the various subspecies on the wing before a permit would be issued to them, and then they would be discouraged from shooting duskies.

Only those who hold such permits are allowed to hunt during the open goose season in areas commonly used by duskies. All hunters are, moreover, required to go to a designated check station at the end of each day of hunting to have their goose kills verified and inspected.

Recognizing that humans make mistakes, both departments established a limit of one dusky goose per year. Any hunter who kills a dusky accidentally loses their permit for the remainder of the season.

To help cull the increasingly troublesome resident western Canadas in the region, the agencies also opened September seasons, when other waterfowl seasons are largely absent. The WDFW created special late-permit goose hunts that are only open to graduates of the state's Advanced Hunter Education program. Their hunting efforts are directed at specific private property where geese depredation is severe.

Hunters who live in areas where there are only one or two subspecies of geese probably cannot readily comprehend the difficulties associated with confidently identifying the different subspecies of geese on the wing. My brother, Scott, lives in a rural area north of Vancouver, within the goose permit zone. Several years ago, while I was visiting, I saw several hundred geese in the grass field next to his home. Despite decades of experience in the outdoors, as well as good "game eyes," I had no clear idea what subspecies the geese were. I think they were cacklers.

They seemed smaller than the westerns I am familiar with at home, and their call seemed higher pitched and tinnier. They were also in a field that was surrounded by woods - common habitat for cacklers. But would I have shot at one of the birds? No way! The light was poor, which is typical of winter weather in duck country, and I was not willing to bet on my identification skills.

Faced with this sort of situation, waterfowlers have responded largely in one of two ways: 1) they wrote goose hunting off entirely as too complicated and burdensome; or 2) they embraced the challenge of the new management structure.

The waterfowlers who have continued to hunt, who passed the test and adhered to the regulations, have, not surprisingly, become some of the most knowledgeable and dedicated goose hunters in the nation. They have learned to identify and avoid areas where duskies are most common. They have taught themselves to look much more closely at geese to identify subtle differences between the birds, such as pattern of light and dark on the breast, wing shape, flock formation and vocalizations. They have also disciplined themselves to shoot only when they are certain about the identification of the bird.

While this often results in fewer birds and less shooting, it also allows these hunters to enjoy a longer season. Perhaps best of all, it provides the deep satisfaction that comes from becoming more intimately aware of the life of a creature you hunt; hunters have a long history as being this country's staunchest conservationists.

From a management standpoint, the program has been largely successful. "Dusky numbers are looking good," said Don Kraege, the WDFW waterfowl section chief. The agencies project more than 16,000 dusky Canada geese will winter in the lower Columbia and Willamette valleys this year. Moreover, complaints from farmers, city park groundskeepers and golf course operators are down. A clear gauge of that is a marked decrease in farmers participating in the late-season damage hunt program in Washington's Clark and Cowlitz c

ounties.

That's why the news that both Oregon and Washington will significantly reduce the dates of the permit goose hunts this year comes as such a disappointment. The most frustrating thing about the cutbacks is that they are not because of a sudden failure on the nesting grounds or anticipated adverse conditions on the wintering grounds. No, they are the result of budget shortfalls in both states and, especially, from the federal government, which funded many of the check stations. "We had to reduce the season by three weeks," Kraege said. Moreover, he says that without budget relief next year, the entire permit hunt could come to an end. "It's not looking real good."

Waterfowlers in both states can be excused from deep cynicism at the priorities of politicians who continue to fund entirely artificial but popular programs such as planting rainbow trout in desert lakes and releasing pheasants in areas where they cannot survive in the wild, yet refuse to adequately support a program dedicated to managing native geese.

It's not all bad news for goose hunters in the region this year, though. You will still be able to hunt, and the number of geese in the lower Columbia and Willamette valleys is projected to be high. "Cacklers seem stable at between 160,000 and 180,000," Kraege said, "and overall numbers are also stabilizing."

UNDERSTANDING THE SYSTEM
Whether a hunter lives in Oregon or Washington, the first thing they need to do to participate in the permit hunts is obtain instructional materials to prepare for the goose test. Both states publish excellent pamphlets on goose identification, and they are free for the asking. In Oregon call (541) 757-4186 ext. 232, and in Washington call (360) 902-2200. In addition, a one-hour video, "Pacific Northwest Goose Management," should be obtained and studied closely. It is available for $10 (VISA and MasterCard only) from Videoland Productions Inc., by phone at (800) 861-1342.

Although most of this season's testing dates have already come and gone, the ODFW and WDFW have conducted tests in early December in the past at their Portland and Vancouver offices, as well as in Wahkiakum and Mill Creek in Washington. However, it is probably a better idea to wait until next year to attempt the test unless you are already familiar with the different subspecies of geese and are a quick study.

Within Oregon, where the bulk of the dusky geese winter, the Northwest Oregon Permit Goose Zone is defined closely in the Oregon game bird regulations pamphlet. Basically, it encompasses the lower Columbia River valley downstream of Portland and the Willamette Valley west of Interstate 5 south to Eugene. It includes all of Clatsop, Columbia, Washington, Yamhill, Polk and Benton counties, as well as portions of Multnomah, Clackamas, Marion, Linn and Lane counties.

In recent years, the permit hunt has been divided into three hunting periods (except for Sauvie Island). Last year, Period 1 extended from Oct. 27-Nov. 7; Period 2 was Nov. 23-Jan. 19; and Period 3 was Feb. 8-Mar. 2. Season dates for the 2003-'04 season had not been determined at the deadline for this magazine, but reductions in hunting days could occur at either end of the season.

Shooting hours are typically from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. during periods 1 and 2, and from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. in Period 3. The daily bag last year was four dark geese and three white geese.

The Washington DFW divides the southwest region into Goose Management Area 2A and 2B. Goose Management Area 2A includes Clark, Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties; Area 2B contains Grays Harbor and Pacific counties. During the 2003-'04 season, Area 2A (except for Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge) was open on Thanksgiving and on Saturdays, Sundays and Thursdays between Nov. 30 and Jan. 26. Ridgefield NWR was open on Saturdays, Mondays and Wednesdays between Nov. 27 and Jan. 26, except it was closed on Christmas and New Year's days. Goose Management Area 2B was open on Saturdays, Sundays and Thursdays between Nov. 9 and Dec. 29 but was closed on Nov. 28. All southwest Washington goose zones had a four-bird daily bag, and shooting hours were between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Oregon and Washington both establish annual quotas for harvest of dusky Canada geese by hunters who mistakenly kill a bird. If the harvest quota within a portion of the permit area is reached, the numbers may be applied to other areas to allow hunting to continue, but once the overall quota is obtained, the states will close the entire hunt early. The total quota for duskies in the Beaver State last year was 165. This was divided into 34 duskies during Period 1, 68 during Period 2, and 63 during Period 3. In addition, there were specific quota numbers for each county within each period, and the largest quotas were, not surprisingly, in the Willamette Valley's Benton, Linn, Polk and Marion counties. This is where the bulk of agricultural operations exist and where there have been the most damage complaints.

The collective quota in Washington in 2002-'03 was 80 birds. For the purpose of quotas, Goose Management Areas 2A and 2B were broken into six zones - Ridgefield NWR, Cowlitz County south of the Kalama River, private land in Clark County, north Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties, Pacific County and Grays Harbor counties. The largest quotes were in southern Cowlitz and Clark counties.

GOOSE HUNTING DESTINATIONS
Although it supports more wintering geese than Washington, Oregon is by far the harder place of the two to find a place to hunt during the permit goose season. This is especially true in the Willamette Valley, where nearly all of the premium waterfowl habitat is privately owned. Well-heeled hunters, of course, get around the problem by belonging to clubs with long-term access to croplands or by individually leasing hunting privileges.

The ODFW has attempted to craft a network of access between hunters. However, the best strategy for gaining permission to hunt on private property, as always, is to develop a relationship with a landowner. It goes without saying that appearing in camouflage with an excited dog on a farmer's doorstep early in the morning of a day you want to hunt is not the best way to obtain access. Rather, locate areas where you think geese will be abundant and make contact during the summer, preferably with something like a smoked salmon or bucket of Dungeness crab.

Ironically, the Willamette Valley's only National Wildlife Refuges, areas normally open to hunting, do not allow any goose hunting. That is because the 2,700-acre Ankeny NWR and 2,400-acre Baskett Slough NWR near Salem, and 5,300-acre William L. Finley NWR south of Corvallis were created primarily as wintering habitat for the protection of Dusky Canada geese. The ODFW's Sauvie Island Wildlife Area (503-621-3488) is one of the Portland area's most popular duck hunting destinations, but has offered only limited permit goose hunting. Geese may only be pursued in the Oak Island and Reeder portions of the area.

The best public access for northwest Oregon goose hunters occurs at the Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuge (360-795-3915) on the lower Columbia River estuary. It sprawls over more than 35,000 acres and includes a network of islands, salt marsh, sloughs, mud flats

and tidal sand bars. The refuge is only accessible by boat, which launch at Aldrich Point on the east and John Day on the west. This is no place for beginners. It is subject to intense storms, large winter tides and heavy ship traffic, and it is easy to become lost in the maze of islands.

However, The Lewis and Clark NWR is also a big attraction for geese, many of which are not duskies. The geese tend to be most abundant around the upland areas, where they feed and rest on grass.

Over on the north side of the Columbia River, no such large public hunting area exists, but Evergreen State hunters enjoy a dispersed network of refuges and can find places to field hunt without a boat.

Sprawling over nearly 5,000 acres, Ridgefield NWR (360-887-4106) is the largest public area. At 15 miles north of Vancouver, it is the farthest upstream. Upwards of 25,000 geese have been seen at Ridgefield at one time. All hunting is now by permit application only, and hunters should contact the refuge for instructions.

The Julia Butler Hansen NWR (360-795-3915) was created primarily for the protection of the rare Columbian white-tailed deer, but goose hunting is allowed on the portion of Hunting Island owned by the refuge.

Farther west, the Willapa NWR, which is located largely within Willapa Bay, offers permit hunting for geese from established blinds (by drawing on the hunt day) in its Riekkola Unit on Wednesdays and Saturdays and free-roam hunting in the Lewis Unit.



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